Editors and Actors: Rowe

Having chosen the topic of ‘actors and editors’ for the BSECS conference in January, I have started work on the voluminous editions of Shakespeare produced throughout the eighteenth century, looking for how the editors respond to the world of the stage. I’ve done some of this already, as exploratory reading for one chapter of the thesis, but this is the first time I’ve really attacked the editors.

Nicholas Rowe, date unknown.

I started with Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), a mediocre dramatist who produced the first edited edition of Shakespeare’s plays (not poems) for Jacob Tonson right at the start of the eighteenth century, with the volumes appearing in 1709-10. Rowe included a much-reprinted biography of Shakespeare, and, as well as earning the princely sum of £36.10s (£2,795.54 in today’s money), also unlocked some of his own creative fire with his editing, going on to compose his very Shakespearean Jane Shore in 1714.

I was using the UL’s facsimile copy of Rowe’s six-volume edition, with an introduction by Peter Holland that turned out to have done a great deal of my work for me. On top of pointing out how much the contemporary Shakespeare owes to Rowe (such as the name of ‘Puck’ and not ‘Robin Goodfellow’ for the mischievous sprite of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and ‘gertrude’ not ‘Gertrard’ in Hamlet), Holland also shows how much Rowe’s edition relies on the practices of the Restoration and early eighteenth-century stage.

In short, Rowe “made the plays conform to contemporary theatrical practice”. He did this by dividing the Shakespeare’s texts into five acts, each subdivided into scenes; Rowe also gave each scene a ‘locator’, such as “An Apartment” or “A Room in the Palace”. While such ‘locators’ might strike us now as something that pushes against the liberties of theatrical interpretation, they were in fact carefully tied to the available backdrops of the stage of that time. As most theatres would have a stock ‘apartment’ or ‘palace’, Rowe’s locations map Shakespeare’s situations onto the decorated stages that he himself had written for.

Of course, this does some weird things to Shakespeare, who wrote for stages largely without decoration, often in the round, and pretty much never with the moveable backdrops of the eighteenth century. I’ll quote Holland here, as he gives an example of how Rowe translates the Elizabethan stage practice to the post-Restoration theatre in Romeo and Juliet.

Rowe’s notion of place in Shakespeare can be most sharply seen at one moment in Romeo and Juliet. In IV.iv Capulet tells the Nurse to wake Juliet and then leaves the stage; the Nurse does what she has been told to do, for Juliet is still on stage, ‘dead’ on her bed. […]] On Shakespeare’s stage this is no problem. For Rowe’s it was. Juliet cannot possibly still be on stage after she has taken the potion at the end of IV.iii, a scene Rowe places in ‘Juliet’s Chamber’. The next scene begins in ‘a Hall’ but then, at Capulet’s exit, Rowe adds a direction: ‘SCENE draws and discovers Juliet on a Bed’. On the stage in 1710 the two painted shutters showing the hall would have been closed in front of the bed at the end of IV.iii, leaving the shutters for the chamber upstage and Juliet in her bed concealed behind the hall shutters; at the right moment in IV.iv the hall shutters would have been drawn apart and Juliet, the bed and the shutters for the chamber would have been discovered. It is a conventional technique in post-Restoration theatre, and Rowe adopts it here.

In addition to the ‘locators’, the illustrations accompanying each play (commissioned by Tonson) seem often to have been inspired by the contemporary theatre. The best-known is Hamlet’s, which, as Holland notes, may well be a (very rare) image of the famous actor Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) in performance.

A Plate from Rowe’s Edition of Shakespeare: Betterton (as Hamlet) is on the left. The fallen chair, part of a famous bit of stage business, suggests this engraving was inspired by a performance.

Not content with mining Peter Holland’s observations, I also dove into the text itself, looking for anything else which might fit with (or undermine) my purposes. As I said earlier, Rowe’s edition contains the editor’s biography of Shakespeare. This text was widely read and reprinted in the period, and, importantly for me, contains several observations on Shakespeare’s own attitude to the stage, many of them based on research carried out by Thomas Betterton in the seventeenth century, when the actor went and interviewed anyone in Warwickshire (and London) who had a memory of Shakespeare.

It is in this biography that we find a portrait of Shakespeare the writer and Shakespeare the player.

He was receiv’d into the Company then in being, at first in a very mean Rank; But his admirable Wit, and the natural Turn of it to the Stage, soon distinguish’d him, if not as an extraordinary Actor, yet as an excellent Writer. His Name is Printed, as was the Custom in those Times, amongst those of the other Players, before some old Plays, but without any particular Account of Parts he us’d to play; and tho’ I have inquir’d, I could never meet with any further Account of him this way, than that the top of his Performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet.
Along with the much recycled image of Shakespeare as the Ghost, the insinuation that Shakespeare wasn’t much of an actor goes on from this text to provoke all sorts of debate, particularly amongst those authors who turn to Shakespeare’s texts for a source of advice about how to act.

Other passages of the biography build upon Rowe’s interest in the contemporary stage, praising Betterton for his performance as Hamlet, so good it is “as if [the role] had been written on purpose for him, and that the author had exactly conceiv’d it as he plays it”. Such connection between Shakespeare and Betterton is the model for later praise of Garrick as someone who not only performs Shakespeare as if it were written for him, but who also – somehow – rivals Shakespeare’s genius.

This post is becoming diffuse, so I’ll conclude here by observing that Rowe’s edition is a markedly ‘theatrical’ edition, interested in (and not at all negative about) the theatrical conditions of Shakespeare’s time, whilst also keen to use Rowe’s own knowledge of the contemporary stage to prepare Shakespeare for this edition’s readers. In this connection to post-Restoration theatrical practice, there lies the roots of later conjunctions between Shakespeare and acting, such as Shakespeare as dramatic mentor or the actor as someone capable of reconnecting with the long-dead playwright.

Next stop, Pope…


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